Commendable for its ambition, but too many variables spoiled the broth. 101 turned into little more than an audience giggle-fest – and I’m not sure that’s the reaction Oneohone wanted.
One thing I certainly can’t knock young company Oneohone’s 101 for is ambition. Any endeavour to realise a promenade and interactive piece on minimal budget (and in a non-purpose built space) deserves commendation – and, touring interactive shows myself, I’m more than aware how much thought must go into every last decision to avoid your show glitching and stalling as soon as an unpredictable audience is unleashed into the room.
It’s a two-pronged feat. To pull an interactive show off, practitioners must not only map out every possible outcome of each and every audience decision, and have a suitably-rehearsed and logical plan in place for each (the creative side of it) – but also just need to battle against the sheer economics of a run, easier said than done when you don’t have the financial backing of Punchdrunk. A promenade setup, tiny venue and large amount of small group interaction can easily limit you (as in this case) to a max capacity of 15-20, so when you’ve got so few tickets to sell – and still must charge standard pub theatre ticket prices – even ‘breaking even’ becomes a relatively unattainable dream.
Well, Oneohone have set their sights on something even more formidable – six times more formidable, in fact, and they must be praised for that. Because 101 is not one show but a cycle of six completely unrelated stories (as far as I’m aware), covering multiple genres and time periods and performed in rep by a cast of five. My review can, of course, only be about the piece within this cycle that I saw (but nevertheless, you’d assume it was strategically chosen for the press night to spotlight the best the company’s got).
But that’s unfortunately where my difficulties begin. The piece I saw, a Victorian gothic tale of creepy children, blindfolded ghosts and twisted renditions of Ring a Ring o‘ Roses, was rough around the edges, often awkward (the wrong, undeliberate type of awkward) and just not as creatively well thought-through than I feel it could – or should – have been.
On paper, the framework certainly has potential – the audience are told they’ll be competing to become the new tutors/nannies of the children, and all of the characters clearly have secrets to share. The audience are put on the spot always immediately, being interviewed by Harriet Madeley’s austere housemistress character in earshot of the rest of the group. It’s a bold and confident start, but the problem is the prelude doesn’t encourage the audience to be anywhere near as invested enough in the parts we’d been assigned to really suspend our disbelief, commit to scenes and prevent the whole thing from just becoming a bit of a giggle-fest.
Case in point, audience members almost immediately shot back some ‘funny’ answers in response to Madeley’s interview questions (a defence mechanism, very possibly, to deflect the awkwardness). As soon as one person doesn’t take the scenario seriously, it cannot help but have a domino-effect on the remainder of the audience who (me included) begin sniggering; a reason why asking open questions, in my opinion, tends to work best one-on-one when any audience silliness is at least contained and audience members don’t automatically resort to playing for laughs in front of their friends. Madeley, as the housemistress, is left awkwardly trying to hold the scene together when not many people in the audience are really bothered about answering the questions (or getting the fictional job we’ve just been told is at stake) at all, and that makes it an understandably difficult situation to negotiate.
We’re then offered an opportunity to speak to the children, but the interaction is given less focus than it needs in order to give assurance that anyone’s decided what the audience are meant to be taking out of it. We’re simply told to ‘teach’ something to the children; potentially a fun invitation if the audience have really been encouraged to invest in the scene and setup. But when the ‘child’ is a twenty-something year old man speaking with a slightly silly, ‘baby’ voice – that required a bit too much suspension of disbelief on this occasion for the audience to not just start taking it as a joke. The group I was with, as would most after the setup I’d imagine, just giggled awkwardly and offered to demonstrate the macarena. I’m not confident Robert Nairne as the child (interestingly a frequent Secret Cinema performer so presumably an accomplished improviser) had been suitably briefed on how to steer the scenario back on track – and, other than repeat ‘Teach me about murder…what is murder!?’, he struggled to keep enough momentum in the scene for me to not want it to swiftly move on.
To add to the increasing silliness, the section was superseded by two blindfolded performers staggering towards the group (like cartoon-character-version-of-Frankenstein’s-monster) before whispering random curses into our ears. Cue more inevitable audience giggling. It was admittedly very very funny – I just laughed out loud thinking about it now – but I’m not convinced that’s the effect Oneohone wanted. One of my main takeouts was that the piece could have worked much better if it was clear the performers were taking the piss and in on the joke, but that wasn’t the case here. Silly creative decisions like this only served to undermine the apparently ‘serious’ story that they’d established, as well of the actions of the other actors who were doing their best to sustain momentum.
Very quickly, I have to admit my suspension of disbelief – and commitment to the part that had been assigned to me – really began to wade, and during following sections (recitals of nursery-rhymes and the bizarre final ‘death’ sequence which seemed utterly random), I found it quite difficult to keep a straight face.
I left wondering whether the 6-show-cycle ambition for 101 got the better of the company, and – had they committed all of their time and creative energy into getting just one piece ‘right’ – whether that may have been more successful for them. Of course and as I stressed earlier, I can only make assumptions that the other five in the cycle are also not perfect pieces of theatre (as I didn’t have time to go back for the other six nights). But 101, in this form, needs serious development time, if the company expects an audience to do anything other than giggle with their mates. And if their intention is just for the audience to giggle with their mates, that’s completely valid – but they need to make it far more obvious that they’re in on the joke.